mountainlion

Some in Greene County are convinced that mountain lions, called "painters" by Appalachians a generation ago, have a presence in the region.

Arville Renner is one of them.

"He's pretty good size. I would say it weighs 75 pounds. I've seen his tracks back at the pond," Renner, who owns a farm in rural St. James, told the newspaper in late 2013. "I've never seen anything like it. I sat on the tractor and looked at it. I just sat real still. He just sat there and looked at me. There's been more people who've said they've seen him."

Renner may well have seen something. But it wasn't an eastern cougar, wildlife officials have declared.

That particular animal has been extinct for more than 70 years, researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced.

As a result, the wildlife agency has proposed removing the subspecies from the endangered species list. Extinct animals and plants cannot be protected under the Endangered Species Act, a measure that's meant to recover imperiled species and their habitats.

"We recognize that people have seen cougars in the wild in the eastern U.S.," Martin Miller, the service's Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species, said in a news release. "Those cougars are not of the eastern cougar subspecies."

During the service's review of the eastern cougar, scientific and historic data, hundreds of reports and information from 21 states and eastern Canadian provinces were analyzed.

No states or provinces provided evidence of the existence of an eastern cougar population, a news release said.

The service concluded that cougars occasionally enter the eastern U.S., but that they are either Florida panthers, mountain lions from the West or have been released or escaped from captivity.

The eastern cougar subspecies was listed as endangered in 1973. Historical accounts, though, suggest that most eastern cougars disappeared in the late 1800s as European immigrants killed cougars to protect themselves and their livestock, as forests were harvested and as white-tailed deer, the cougar's primary prey, nearly went extinct in eastern North America.

The last records of eastern cougars are believed to be in Maine (1938) and New Brunswick, Canada (1932), the release said.

Wild cougar populations in the West have been expanding their range eastward in the last two decades, with individual cougars confirmed throughout the Midwest.

Though rare, western mountain lions have been spotted in the East, the service said.

James McAfee, Greene County's Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer, offered his thoughts in late 2013.

"The western cougar has a growing population like everything else. It's exploding," he said two years ago. "It's not unthinkable that they could have migrated."

He added: "There have always been people -- loggers, hunters, hikers -- there have always been reports of mountain lions and wolves. Never say, 'Never.' There is a lot of hard-to-reach, hard-to-access territory, even in the eastern United States with all the development."